Big Implications of a Little Screen

April 14, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

I remember the conversation well even though it happened nearly 40 years ago. Strange how time wipes away so many things but leaves the most mundane moments intact. At any rate, the year was 1978. I had recently turned 11. A friend and I were fantasizing about what it might be like to have a home VCR. In those days, VCRs existed but were so unwieldy and expensive that they were typically only found in corporations and schools. My elementary school had one and, if a teacher wanted to use it, it was wheeled in on a huge cart attached to a television with an enormous 21” screen.

The concept of actually watching a movie at home without being reliant on the vagaries of a television schedule was beyond our wildest imagination. Star Wars on demand. Close Encounters on demand. The possibilities would have seemed endless. There was also the added benefit of being able to record favorite shows to watch later. Today, all of this seems so mundane but back in those days, it was Nirvana. Or perhaps a Pandora’s Box.

TVs in those days came in two flavors: the bare-bones types that were often used in bedrooms (for households wealthy enough to have more than one set) and the console. “Bedroom” TVs were usually in the 12” to 18” range and were sometimes black-and-white. Console TVs were pieces of furniture – cabinets that had a TV built-in. They were usually 21” to 25”. Some really high-end ones were 28”. They were heavy and bulky and used vacuum tubes. When one broke, you called in a TV repairman. All of those things sound foreign today but anyone 40 or older probably remembers them to one degree or another.

VCRs became common household appliances during the 1980s. In the early part of the decade, they were still scarce. The first time I saw one outside a school was in 1984 when a friend’s father bought a Betamax machine. My father purchased a Panasonic VHS for me for my birthday in September 1985. I was a newly-minted college Freshman at the time but lived close enough that I was able to come home that weekend. The first thing I used the VCR for was to record an episode of Doctor Who that played Saturday afternoon. I then went to the store and bought a copy of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. For anyone wondering why that’s the movie I have seen the most times, it’s because it was the only one I owned for quite some time. (For what it’s worth, the second movie I purchased was Star Trek 3 and the third was Star Wars, for which I paid $80 because it was only available at the “rental” price at the time.)

By 1990, VCR penetration was above 50%, meaning that more than half the households in the United States owned at least one. I moved into an apartment in early 1991 and brought one of our three VCRs with me. Televisions were also starting to change with consoles becoming less common, black-and-white sets going the way of the dodo, and larger stand-alones becoming commonplace. In 1995, I started looking into upgrading my meager setup into a crude approximation of a “home theater.” Space constraints more than financial limitations restricted what I could do – the cookie-cutter townhouse I owned at the time prevented more than the most basic of set-ups but I bought a 31” Sony XBR TV (a monster that weighed 130 pounds) to go with six speakers, a top-of-the-line Denon receiver, and a laserdisc player (to supplement the VCR). I added a DVD player in 1997 or 1998 and soon thereafter scrapped the laserdisc player after sinking about $10,000 into laserdisc movies. (I ended up giving some away but throwing out the bulk of them.)

By the time I went shopping for my first house in 2000, getting something with a “home theater-ready” room was a priority. I turned down several otherwise lovely places because they didn’t have what I wanted. I finally chose a ranch where the lower level was ready to be configured exactly how I wanted it. The furnace was in the garage so there was no ambient noise from the blower and, as a bonus, there was a working fireplace off to the right of where I planned to set up the TV. Since bigger was better, I went as big as I could go at the time – a top-of-the-line 65” rear-screen projection TV with full 1080p HD resolution (and a $6000 price tag). Weighing in at 300 pounds with a depth of 30”, it dominated the room. But, with the lights off, watching an upconverted DVD on that behemoth was amazing. By 2004, however, I was itching to go even bigger. Rear-screen projection TVs of up to 85” were available or I could go the route of a front-screen projector and exceed ten feet.

Marriage put an end to those grand plans. After sharing my home for a couple of years, my wife wanted something that she could put her stamp on. Unfortunately, “bigger” didn’t mean “better”, at least insofar as a home theater was concerned. My screen shrunk from 65” to 55” (although it also shed hundreds of pounds and about two feet of depth). I ended up in a basement where the on-and-off gyrations of the furnace played havoc with the audio. Eventually, I watched movies in the bedroom on a 45” set. So much for big. Ideally, I would love to have 100” of screen but there’s nowhere in the house that would support something that large so I make do with what I have.

Yet, even as I was striving for something bigger, a growing segment of the market was headed in the other direction.

It started with Netflix – or at least it started in numbers big enough to matter. I’m referring to the concept of watching a movie on a phone or tablet. The first time I saw someone doing this, I scoffed. Really?  A movie on a 4” screen? You had to squint to figure out what was happening. The sound was tinny, borderline-inaudible. (Admittedly, a set of quality wireless earphones can do a lot for the latter problem.) Why, I wondered, would you do that to yourself? More importantly, why do it to the movie? When composing his masterpiece, the director never imagined someone would be watching it on such a small screen.

Over the years, however, I have come over to the dark side. Yes, I’ll admit it here – I sometimes watch movies on a small screen. Not a phone – that’s too small for me. (Part of that is because I have “old eyes” and can’t readily identify what’s happening on a phone screen.) But I have probably watched in excess of one-hundred movies on a tablet. Philistine! you cry. I was a little embarrassed at first until I learned that I’m not the only critic who does this. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find a critic who doesn’t do this. There’s a reason why many of the screeners are tied to apps. It’s recognized that they are going to be seen in smaller-than-10” dimensions.

Practicality and convenience play a part in the industry’s growing reliance on screener links. Purists resisted this for a long time, insisting that even watching a movie on a large-screen television “devalued” the experience. There was a era when all of the studios hosted special “Academy” screenings of their prestige projects. The idea was that anyone with a “need to see” (primarily members of any group that handed out year-end awards) could attend one of these. They were expensive, however (hiring theaters, shipping prints, etc.), and they became infrequent during the 1990s. Today, they are all but defunct except in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

The initial migration was to DVD screeners. Those were shipped en masse with the hope that voters would take the time to watch them. However, busy critics and Academy members, overwhelmed by the sheer volume, often viewed only a handful. Then along came screener links, designed with phone and tablet-viewing in mind. The strategy works. Studios control these on-line screeners (recipients can’t hoard them the way they can DVDs) and they are more difficult to pirate than physical copies. Equally important is the convenience aspect.  A viewer can watch a movie (or part of a movie) almost anywhere, which increases the possibility that a key performance might be seen. A film that might be relegated to the bottom of some stack now gets a chance during a bus or taxi ride or on an airplane.

And that’s just on the industry side of things. Consumers have gravitated toward streaming services with increasing fervor. And almost no one is watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu on TVs. The biggest incentive to purchase a subscription is portability. Take a large movie library with you. Watch movies while being a car passenger. Watch them in bed. Watch them while camping.

There are far too many advantages to small-screen watching for it to lose its popularity. Consumers accept it. The industry accepts it. Even purist critics have been forced to accept it. But what about the people who make the movies? How does this impact them?

There’s a difference between watching a character-based indie and a big-budget blockbuster on a phone/tablet. The former translates much better. That’s no surprise. The blockbuster is designed for one thing: shock and awe. It demands a big screen and A+ sound system for maximum immersion and impact. Those things aren’t available on a phone. Watching any Hollywood tent-pole on a 5” screen is going to diminish it, stripping it down to essentials which are often missing. Narrative and character-based dramas, however, rely less on visuals and more on story and, for the most part, these hold up well. My rule of thumb is that the only movies I will watch for the first time on a tablet are the “smaller” ones. I’ll watch tent-poles and blockbusters on my iPad but only after I have seen them at least once in a theater.

For filmmakers who specialize in non-spectacle fare, they have to remember that a significant portion of their eventual audience may be watching on a small screen. Some of them are excited by this, feeling that exposure of any sort is better than the oblivion of a bargain bin. Frankly, I’m surprised at how few indies are showing up on the streaming services. As we move into the future, this trend is likely to accelerate. There may be a time when small and mid-budget films bypass theatrical distribution altogether and when the concept of “home video” refers more to small-screen viewing that watching in a “home theater.” Or, to put it another way, for a movie to work in 2030, it may need to be optimized for 5” viewing.

What about the blockbusters, the $100+M budget-breakers, the Star Warses and superhero action films? Fans alone will keep these afloat in theaters for a long time but, unless studios make changes to curb excessive visual clutter, they will lose out in the long run with those who abandon multiplexes altogether for phone/tablet watching. No spectacle film will work on a small screen unless it offers something substantive. And that’s where a compromise will be necessary – balancing big-screen impact with small-screen content. Scripts will have to be smarter, budgets tighter, and long-term strategies rethought. It’s hard to imagine Michael Bay surviving in this landscape. As long as superhero fatigue doesn’t kill it, the MCU should continue to thrive as long as it evolves. Marvel has already proven capable of small-screen success with their Netflix series; now the company will need to begin tailoring their films to two audiences.

There’s another possibility: two versions of every major film. One, replete with eye-popping special effects and ear-splitting sound effects, would be released exclusively to theaters. Another, less ostentatious version, with stronger story content and less reliance on visual razzle-dazzle, would reach the home & streaming market. It’s an ambitious concept and it may take years – or never – to be adopted.

In an ideal world, I would have a soundproofed, dark room with 8 speakers, a 100” screen, and a luxurious recliner. That’s where I would retire to watch everything. The reality, defined by space limitations in my home and financial constraints (true home theaters are exceedingly expensive), is nowhere close to that. So, for now, I’ll curl up in bed next to my sleeping wife, bring up a streaming app, put on my wireless headphones, and watch something created for a 25-foot screen. That future is here.